우물 안 개구리

2/25/2013

Red Chapel Ironies

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 4:11 pm Print

I recently got around to watching the Red Chapel, the unusual guerrilla documentary by the Danish journalist Mads Brügger.1 The basic premise is a visit to North Korea by Mads Brügger and two Danish-Korean comedians for the purpose of cultural exchange. Brügger’s main ploy is the use of the speaking disability of one of the two, Jacob Nossell, as a way to create embarrassment, conceal criticism, and attempt to expose the heartless evil of the DPRK.

The movie fails at its task. We learn nothing about North Korea that any number of other documentaries, journalistic accounts, or other limited looks into the bubble of elite life in Pyongyang have not already shown us. Brügger seems to completely unable to understand the psychological universe that North Koreans live in. Instead of coming to terms with the victory the Stalinist state has had in transforming the worldview of its people, he sees everyone around him acting always and only out of fear, and engaged constantly in a kind of performance that helps him justify his own deceit. Of course, it isn’t either of these. We are seeing a people who have carved out a livable fiction, parts of which they know is a lie, and parts they grasp tightly in order to function in their society. In terms of basic technique, it is no different than the ability we develop to ignore injustice around us and participate enthusiastically in social games we know are built on fantasies. Fear and falsehood, of course, play a part, but I suspect many of the emotions he sees are as powerful and genuine as any we see these three Danes offer the camera.

Nor is there much in the way of new evils exposed. While Brügger seems almost delighted to be able to show the North Korean treatment of Jacob and his disabilities, especially when he is silenced and almost written out of the reworked comic sketch that is the product of the entire affair, this clashes awkwardly with the deep warmth Jacob is shown by their handler, and Jacob’s own complex emotions over what he sees and his own role in the deceptive game that Mads has invited him to join. For those of us who have seen or read of the treatment of some disabled elsewhere in the world, including South Korea, this documentary fails to shock.

While Brügger makes ominous references to the horrible conditions of the camps in remote places, the starvation of the multitude, and at one point reminds himself that having a picnic in the woods is like enjoying a trip to the Black Forest during Nazi rule, the only two real forms of oppression we see in the movie is the complete editing license assumed by the North Koreans over the performances of their Danish guests, and by Mads himself as he cajoles and pressures his two companions to go along with the North Korean demands and the deception they are carrying out.

But this is why the documentary is a most interesting failure. It shows how Brügger is so different from someone like Sacha Baron Cohen or the interviewers of the Daily Show. The Red Chapel makes a good pair with The Ambassador, Brügger’s adventure in the Central African Republic with credentials as a Liberian consul purchased through a Dutch supplier of diplomatic titles. As with the Red Chapel, we don’t really learn anything new. Most of us recognize North Korea as a Stalinist hell and none of us are surprised when Brügger discovers corruption in central Africa. However, these two documentaries reveal a genuinely interesting approach that Brügger takes: On the one hand he reveals his own willingness to carry his deceit to extreme limits, and his willingness to drag vulnerable individuals into the heart of his game (Jacob in Red Chapel, and two Pygmies he hires for his match factory in Africa). On the other, the both documentaries use extensive footage and commentary to the end of exposing his own failures. The result is that characters come alive in his documentaries in a way that they are merely reduced to stand-ins for stereotypes in other similar projects.

Brügger also includes footage where others criticize him directly, especially from own collaborators. Mads Brügger, the director, despite the authoritative narrative voice he offers over the action, does not spare Mads, the participant, from his own strange interrogation. This is seen throughout the Red Chapel, where the tension and interaction between Jacob and Mads nearly steals us away from the core drama of the interaction between the Danes and the North Koreans. The result is, for example, that instead of Jacob getting used as a tool of propaganda by Mads (something that Brügger admits doing), and subjected to abuse by the North Koreans, the young man’s agency comes through strong throughout the documentary. The climax of both documentaries happens at the decisive moment when Brügger’s collaborators take a stand against him and refuse to participate any more. Jacob will not join Brügger in pumping his fist in a state organized street march against American imperialism and, during a blood diamond negotiation, Brügger’s Danish assistant and French interpreter is heard yelling that the game has reached its limit, and he must proceed no further.

At the close of the Red Chapel Brügger graciously hands Jacob complete victory, a victory of compassion over the strike against totalitarianism that Brügger was aiming for. When he persuades Jacob to hand their North Korean handler a letter in which he asks why he never saw or met other disabled people in North Korea, instead of waiting for the awkward silence or some propagandistic reply, Jacob immediately lets her off the hook by telling her that perhaps next time he will get the chance to meet them.

The result is that Brügger has created—and given his personality, he may well be satisfied with the irony of it—a documentary that repeatedly declares itself to be a condemnation of North Korea as the world’s most evil country, and instead puts humanity on display with a far more positive message.

  1. The title, Det røde kapel, is a Danish play on words from the German Rote Kapelle = The Red Orchestra communist resistance organization under Nazi rule []

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. []

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.
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  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

5/25/2010

A Question of Credibility: The ASCK

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 9:11 pm Print

Of late I have become depressed by what I see as a lack of credibility in some of the efforts to counter the flood of media reports and bombastic condemnations of North Korea. I believe that continued calls for dialogue and warnings against escalation must be accompanied by an honest and active critique of North Korean policies together with a full recognition of the agency of the North Korean state as an actor – not merely a re-actor to the policies of South Korea, the United States, or other parties.

Concerned Scholars

In 2005 I joined an organization called the ASCK, the “Alliance of Scholars Concerned About Korea.” I was only in the second year of my PhD program, but was delighted to hear of an organization of scholars and graduate students who were concerned about US polices towards the two Koreas and sought to promote dialogue, cooperation, and peace on the peninsula. I believed that this organization, reminiscent of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars (CCAS) that led academic opposition to the Vietnam War among scholars of Asia, could help provide historical context for the tensions among the Koreas, warn against potentially ineffective US policies, and perhaps spread a better understanding of the North Korean regime’s domestic and international polices that critiqued its many flaws without demonizing it.

I became disillusioned with the organization, however, when I came to see that the most distinctive and consistent aspect of its portrayal of the Korean Crisis was what it avoided, rather than what it focused upon. In its statements, emailed calls for action, and on its webpage I found that, time and time again, the ASCK carefully avoided treating North Korea as a strategic actor responsible for its own actions. Either it treats North Korea as if it were some kind of otherwise harmless chemical substance that only explodes in reaction to certain other chemicals, or else when it calls for action, North Korea is appended at the end of a list of concerned parties, as if it were some minor last minute addition to a shopping list, “Buy me some milk, bread, carrots, oh, and while you are there, a pack of gum.”

Even on issues that did not directly involve tensions between the Koreas, I have been troubled by inadequacies in some of their campaigns. In the past few years ASCK has supported the efforts to spread the work of the South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission which has done valuable work, especially in uncovering information about atrocities committed during or just before the Korean War, but the overwhelming emphasis of reporting on their findings is about atrocities committed by anti-Communist forces in a way that occasionally leaves out context or perspective. ASCK has justly protested against heavy-handed political intervention into the revision of history textbooks by conservative forces in South Korea, a position I agree with, but if it cares about history education it should also then be willing to point out the problems in the narratives of existing South Korean textbooks and call for their reform. The ASCK has supported House Resolution 121 on the “Comfort Women” issue, again a laudable cause, but given how distant this is from the organization’s professed goals, one would hope they would direct somewhat more energy into a statement condemning North Korean treatment of returning refugees, or the abuse of its own people, which is undeniably closer to the heart of their mission.

Silence, and Other Sins

It is in its handling of the tensions with North Korea, however, that the ASCK has been truly disappointing. When North Korea carried out its nuclear weapon test in October, 2006, I expected a strongly worded statement of condemnation from the organization attached to an appeal for calm and a realistic appraisal of the alternatives going forward. Nothing. Following North Korea’s May, 2009 nuclear test, I thought surely this time the ASCK would be forced to make a statement condemning the test. Almost all of the current ASCK steering committee and other leading members did stir in June, 2009, but in an unexpected manner when they signed a circulated “Statement from Professors in North America Concerned about Korean Democracy” (English | Korean) deploring the fact that, since the election of Lee Myung-bak, “Korean democracy had lost its way.” It condemned the suppression of candlelight vigils, and problematic government moves against the freedom of press and online activism.

I too was concerned by Lee’s handling of the protests, even if I believe it is too much to say that Korea’s young democracy had “lost its way.” If anything it has been the progressive movement that has lost its way, and as a result, lost the trust of the Korean people who subsequently elected a conservative President. It is now a time to regroup, rethink, and plan for the next election. It was not, however, so much the position espoused in the 10 June 2009 statement signed by over two hundred professors (I’m not sure what organizations led the drive to collect them) that dismayed me as the fact that the ASCK or its members put together no statement and collected no signatures at the time condemning a North Korean nuclear test that happened only a few weeks earlier on 25 May, 2009 and coming, rudely, only two days after the suicide of former president Roh Moo Hyun. Compared to the more muted response to the 2006 test, which nevertheless led to the unanimous passing of UN Security Council Resolution 1718, this time even China and Russia were surprisingly vocal in their strong condemnations, which helped lead to the passing of the more sharp-toothed UN Security Council Resolution 1874 in June of last year. But ASCK mobilized no scholars against these tests, or even bother, at this point, to weigh in on the dangers of United Nations sanctions being unproductive, even if justified in their condemnation.

I don’t think North Korea would have cowered at the spectacle of having its nuclear tests criticized by a few academics: it is not about that. It is about credibility; it is about taking the right position, of being willing to make a clear honest statement about something that touches the heart of one’s issue, and avoid the hypocrisy that plagued so many progressives in the Cold War who took a stand against American imperialism but fell silent when faced by the horrors of Communist oppression.

Sometimes the ASCK does speak up and mention North Korea, but when it does so, it is reluctant to treat North Korea like a full participant in the crisis, even when arguably (and I’m not even asking them to go this far) it is the primary source of tensions.

Let us look at two representative examples:

1) “Time to End the Korean War” (2003)

It is always the United States which is the primary target for the ASCK. Article two of this statement singles out the US for criticism and accuses it of pushing the Korean peninsula “perilously close of war” (Poorly chosen words, at any rate, since a major push of the ASCK is to get everyone to realize that the war never ended) and specifically mentions its “threats of embargo, preemptive strikes and regime change” but nowhere in the statement is there an acknowledgment that the DPRK plays a significant role as an obstacle to peace on the peninsula.

It is very unfortunate that the supporters of the statement listed at the bottom which, to ASCK’s credit, includes almost all of the leading scholars of Korea in the United States and Europe—many of whom I deeply respect—did not point out this disturbing asymmetry. At the very least they could have appended a watered down phrase to article two saying something along the lines of, “and the policies of the DPRK haven’t exactly been helpful, either.”

2) “A Transnational Appeal for Peace and Security in Northeast Asia” (2009)

The ASCK is a master of passive constructions designed to avoid difficult questions of responsibility, except when such responsibility can be directly attributed to anyone except North Korea. In this appeal, found on the positions page of the ASCK, we learn that “The United States, South Korea, and Japan are tightening sanctions” but “Tension is rising,” “military tensions actually increased,” and the “Northeast Asian region was swept by fears by a sudden change in the nuclear situation.” This sudden change, we learn, came at the end of a chain of events which places North Korea in the position of the victim. Here is the narrative as portrayed by the ASCK:

In April Pyongyang “announced that it would launch a satellite.” There is no mention of why this might be a very bad idea, completely counter productive, a potential violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1718, and that a communications satellite is not the best use of an economically failing state’s resources. President Obama and the Security Council condemned the launch and tightened sanctions. North Korea then, on May 25, “responded to what it viewed as the statement’s infringement on its sovereign right by conducting a nuclear test.” The UNSC passed Resolution 1874 to punish North Korea “for what it believed” to be a violation of previous resolutions, and North Korea “in turn” tested more missiles. This was all part of a “vicious cycle of confrontation.”

Later in the document, again in reference to North Korea’s launch of a satellite, a whole paragraph is supplied to present North Korea’s argument in defense of its satellite-loaded missile launch, but not a single sentence is spared in the document to outline why most of the world, except for such noble supporters of democracy as Cuba, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe, have expressed sentiments ranging from concern to outright shock and condemnation. No mention is made of the fact that it is highly likely that delivering a satellite into orbit was not the only, likely not even the primary purpose of the launch. Instead, North Korea’s claims are presented without any skepticism.

This entire narrative only functions, however, if we see each step as directly connected to the previous one – of each move being a reaction to some previous provocation. This, I believe, is not only incredibly naive, but seriously underestimates the intelligence and strategy of the North Korean regime.

More troubling in this statement is how little is expected of North Korea. It calls on Obama and Chairman Kim Jong-il to “return to a course of dialogue” but all of the rest of the demands made in the statement are directed to other governments: the United States, South Korea, Russia, China, and Japan. It does not ask North Korea to stop nuclear tests, stop firing its missiles, or end its constant threats of war. It brings up the Japanese frustrations with North Korea over the abduction question but does not ask North Korea to address them. On the contrary, in what must be an ominous reference to colonialism it notes Japan’s “historical responsibility for the present crisis,” and notes Japan’s “refusal to fulfill its obligations to provide oil to North Korea under the Six-Party agreements” without any reference to North Korea’s failures to follow through with its many broken promises.

In other words, if someone is coming to this issue without any prior knowledge of the background of events, they can not be blamed for getting the impression that North Korea is a pitiable, if feisty victim of international bullying.

A Call For A New ASCK

These two examples are part of a pattern that is deeply troubling. Barring a major shift in its approach, I believe graduate students and scholars who might sympathize with the noble goals set out in the ASCK mission statement should distance themselves from this organization, and refuse to support any statements such as those listed above. I sincerely hope a new cooperative alliance of scholars concerned about Korea will eventually take its place. There is a desperate need for such an organization, but the statements put out by the ASCK risk creating suspicion and attracting ridicule. Progressive supporters of direct dialogue between the United States and North Korea, a defusing of the military tensions, and a final peace treaty are often vilified as “pro-North Korean” or seen as apologists for its oppressive regime. I believe the vast majority of ASCK members and statement supporters are strongly opposed to North Korea’s Stalinist dictatorship and its oppressive policies and their individual writings often confirm this. Doubtlessly some of them believe that there is enough in the media already which condemns North Korea’s nuclear tests, its domestic oppression, and its brinkmanship, and that therefore an organization such as the ASCK plays an important balancing role by focusing on its counter-critique. To those friends I can only say that I think this is both a tactical mistake in terms of lost potential support, as well as morally troubling.

As historians and academics studying Korea, there is nothing wrong with us taking a firm political stand. There is no apolitical history, the very questions we ask in our research already betray the assumptions that guide our scholarship. However, some questions, when asked, present themselves like a mirror, reflecting naturally, if uncomfortably, back upon ourselves.

Now, as tensions are reaching a new peak following the likely North Korean sinking of the South Korean vessel Cheonan, it is more important than ever that all of us engaged in the academic study of Korea who are deeply concerned about the future of peace on the Korean peninsula speak up. If we support continued dialogue, a carefully moderated response, and oppose any talk of military retaliation, we should do so without denying North Korean responsibility and, despite our justified skepticism of all state parties, tentatively accept the most likely explanations provided. If the ASCK refuses to provide such a voice and live up to its mission, then we should either create an alternative organization or individually make our positions known.

-Konrad M. Lawson

7/14/2009

Korean War in art

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 7:27 pm Print

"Crimson Harvest" by Gobau
Japan Focus has an article detailing and displaying Gobau’s Korean War art which has a plethora of arresting images. Gobau worked from the Republic of Korea side: North Korean forces are not shown in a good light, but South Korean forces don’t get a pass on their purportedly anti-communist atrocities.

7/7/2009

North Korean Propoganda Posters

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:44 am Print

Thanks to Adam at Mutantfrog for pointing me to these North Korean Propoganda posters. I think this is my favorite but the whole group is worth a look.

3/20/2009

Dokdo is Korean for “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!”

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:57 pm Print

Apparently inspired by the success of other international publicity campaigns around disputed lands — Tibetan independence, Pakistani claims to Kashmir, the Golan Heights, etc. — some Korean business owners in New York are trying to raise the profile of the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute by publicizing it in English on dry cleaning bags.

This is part of a larger push to broaden Korean diaspora engagement with the homeland and leverage overseas success into diplomatic weight. This includes trying to instill a sense of the importance of the Dokdo issue — as Koreans see it — into second and third generation Korean Americans. I’m not sure what the benefit is to tying Korean American identity to a post-colonial maritime resource dispute instead of … well, almost anything from the panoply of Korean history and culture seems like it would be more likely to succeed in the long term and have greater benefits.

Speaking of generations, the North-South separation has had linguistic consequences over the years. Most of the examples given seem to be in the political realm, terms which have taken on specific meanings within the Kim-cult/juche system. After decades of living in a more or less permanent state of political terror, I would imagine that most North Koreans would be very careful, precise with their language. The culture shock for individual defectors is already pretty severe; the culture shock of reunification in Germany was substantial, though the political system in East Germany was never as thoroughly totalitarian, information was never as tightly controlled.

1/22/2009

North Korea’s engagement with the world

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:05 pm Print

I remember the shocked look on my students’ faces fifteen years ago when I told them that we actually had no idea how decisions were made or leaders picked in North Korea, that it was more or less still a “black box.” I find it fascinating that we’re starting to get a better public picture of the internal processes of North Korea.

One of the reasons is the steady stream of refugees. In the Financial Times, Matthew Engel reports on a Korean enclave in the SW London suburb of New Malden. The relatively closed and self-reliant society is mostly middle-class, “bourgeois,” but among “the beginnings of an underclass” are North Koreans. I get the impression from the article that many of them are illegal immigrants, and their “underclass” status comes both from their lack of professional skills and their desire to remain outside of official notice.

Mitchell Lerner, at Ohio State University, believes that he’s found the key to understanding the Kim dynasty of North Korea: juche. And when “self-reliance” is slipping, domestically, they bluster internationally to bolster their credentials as strong and independent leaders. It’s counterintuitive: when they need help the most, they can’t get it. But their legitimacy as rulers is based on juche. He writes

In the political realm, it called for chaju (independence), in which North Korean leaders governed without constraint from outside pressure or internal challenge. Economically, juche called for charip (self-sustenance), which required a largely self-contained economy based on domestic workers using domestic resources to satisfy domestic needs. In international relations, juche advocated chawi (self-defense), a foreign policy based on complete equality and mutual respect between nations as well as the right of self-determination and independent policymaking.

Juche, simply, demanded the people subordinate themselves to the state, and the state in turn would advance their collective interests in accordance with the uniqueness and majesty of Korea, and always in pursuit of greater economic, political, and international independence.

By justifying the position of the suryong (single leader) and uniting the people behind him, juche successfully advanced Kim’s interests.

I’d call that a fairly textbook kind of fascism: emphasizing the independence of the nation, the subordination of the people to the nation, and the fuhrerprincip — the leader who embodies sovereignty. Even the reliance on the US as a hobgoblin echoes the “we have been denied our rightful place in the world” rhetoric of the early 20c fascist regimes. The only thing that distinguishes North Korea from them, really, is the longevity of the Kim dynasty. The Kim refered to in the above excerpt is Kim Il Sung, the founder of the DPRK; his son, Kim Jong Il, is one of the only examples I can think of of a successful fascist succession.

However, by closely associating the government’s legitimacy with its successful pursuit of juche, Kim had opened the door to potential disaster. When he triumphantly achieved juche, North Koreans would perpetuate and even embrace his rule. But if the pursuit was unsuccessful, the most fundamental justification for the regime would appear violated.

Legitimation of a government is always a double-edged sword. Some forms of legitimation have a sharper back edge than others: the Confucian Mandate of Heaven is like this, as well.

When considered within this framework, Kim’s tendency to behave more aggressively when he seemed to be at his weakest makes sense. Unable to deny economic and political instability that suggested his government was not acting in accordance with juche principles, Kim redoubled his efforts to demonstrate his strength and independence in the third juche realm, foreign policy.

He does a nice job fitting the periods of economic trouble with the eras of international tension. He also does a good job illustrating the claustrophobic environment — the limited, controlled media, the cradle-to-grave indoctrination, the purges, etc — which makes North Korea such a surreal place.

Update: Speaking of Surreal, Curzon has a post on Reverend Billy Graham’s relationship with North Korea, starting with his missionary ancestors. [via

4/5/2007

National Archives: Captured North Korean Documents

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 6:57 pm Print

I returned last week from the second of what will be four trips to the National Archives before I leave for Korea in June. On my first trip I had only two days and decided to stick to easily accessible microfilms of early postwar South Korea related State Department documents that were not available in published reproductions in the Harvard-Yenching library. My second trip however, and in other trips to come, I have been focusing entirely on North Korean documents captured by the United States during the Korean War found in Record Group (RG) 242.

A lot of the best research related to the early postcolonial history of northern Korea and the first years of the North Korean regime to come out in recent years has made use of RG242 material. The captured North Korean documents only make up a tiny fragment of RG242, a record group which is primarily made up of the vast ocean of captured documents from World War II Germany, but is still said to consist of more than 1.6 million pages of wonderful material.

There are some articles floating around in English about the archive1 and I understand that there are several papers and a full length index of the collection available in Korean. In his book on the North Korean Revolution, Charles Armstrong has a great appendix dedicated to these sources, and also reports that many of the documents have been reproduced in a Korean source collection that I hope to get a look at when I no longer have easy access to the originals in Washington D.C.

So what is to be found in this collection? Well, just about every sort of document you might imagine, though the majority of what I have seen dates from 1946-1950. For a short time during the Korean War the United States was in control of large proportion of North Korean territory and the fleeing North Korean forces certainly weren’t able to burn or evacuate documents fast enough to prevent many materials from falling into the hands of US/UN forces. A lot of this material, however, clearly seemed to be of a normal published nature. Many of the documents, photos, books, newspapers, and magazines found by troops in North Korea were put together, organized by date and location of capture and sent back to the US divided up into a collection of boxes grouped by Shipping Advices (SA). A few items appear to have been removed from the collection during and after the Korean war for “local exploitation” and not all of these items were returned to the archive. Most of this material was declassified in the late 1970s and I only saw a handful of items in the index blanked out and accompanied with a sheet designating an item as restricted.2

You can find a hundred page handbook on swine-raising for farmers3 listed in the same original shipping box with three thousand pages or so run of a journal on Korean linguistics.4 You can find a book of military songs5 in the same original shipping box with the minutes of a Peasant League Committee on village defence.6 You can find applications to join the North Korean Democratic Boy Scouts7 or a bunch of handwritten reports on education in Christian sunday schools8. There are long lists of Chinese and Japanese residents in various counties throughout North Korea9 or a handwritten “table of truant school children.”10 There are trial records, police records, financial records, salary receipts, student lecture notes and idle doodles, propaganda books, election posters, literature, folders full of photos, political cartoons, thousands of pages of newspapers and journals, lots of speech compilations and meeting minutes. It is, in a word, overwhelming.

I spent an entire day at the National Archives just going through the large English-language index to the collection available on a single reel of microfilm which allowed me to locate potential items that are of interest to me in my own research. This index divides the RG242 captured North Korean materials up by SA (2005-2013, and 10181), Box number, and Item number. It shows the date and location of capture for each box. Each item has a one or two line description in English of what it contains. However, I have learnt to treat this information with caution, because occasionally what you actually get when you request the material is more or less, and sometimes somewhat different from what this index shows. I sympathize with the monumental task the indexers faced, however, because many “items” consist of a vanilla folder which contains a pile of sometimes completely unrelated handwritten documents.

It is truly wonderful that any of us can walk into the National Archives, which is a short metro subway and bus ride from Washington D.C. at the College Park complex (Archives II), sit down in their wonderful second floor reading room, and look through these documents at our leisure. But how do you request this material? Below I offer a few tips for anyone who would like to look at this collection:
(more…)

  1. Including Thomas Hosuck Kang “North Korean Captured Records at the Washington National Records Center, Suitland, Maryland,” in The Association for Asian Studies, Committee Asia Libraries Bulletin (Feb 1979). 30-37. []
  2. Classified materials appear to include SA 2009 1/31 “Handwritten sheet, titled “Roster of Informants” containing the personal history of ******* born on 5 Aug 31 and dwelling at MANSU-dong, INCHON city, dated 14 Sep 50, belonging to NAM-dong Police Substation, 1 p.” – withdrawn 3/10/77 because it contained “Otherwise restricted information” and an item in SA 2011 box number 8: “Handwritten and typewritten file of personal history of civilians living in Pusan, ROK August 1950 written by ***** pp. 45″ Also withheld for “Otherwise restricted information” 3/10/77. I did not try to request these materials so I don’t know if they are still restricted. []
  3. SA 2012 1/131 []
  4. SA 2012 1/24 []
  5. SA 2012 5/12 []
  6. SA 2012 5/145 []
  7. SA 2005 4/30 []
  8. SA 2005 4/41 []
  9. SA 2005 all over box 9, those interested in Japanese repatriation, Chinese minorities in Korea or in Korean-Japanese intermarriage could potentially find some great material here and I have no idea if this has been exploited yet []
  10. SA 2005 10/17 []

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