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Taking the Mickey out of North Korea


'North Korea' by Chris Johnston. Large missiles with flags of US, UK and China stand around small missile with flag of North KoreaIt was Walter Mondale, the former US vice president, who said that anyone claiming to be an expert on North Korea was either a liar or a fool.

Since the threats of nuclear attacks against its southern neighbour and the USA, North Korea seems to have spawned many experts in the West. Most of those who  are neither liars nor fools agree that the threats constitute sabre rattling by the young and untried leader, Kim Jong-un, to keep the military in check so that some reforms, especially to the command economy, can be implemented.

Others say the threats are real enough. After all, last time round under Jong-un's father, Kim Jong-il, the Cheonan, a South Korean ship, was bombed, drowning 46 seamen, and Yeonpyeong Island in South Korea was shelled, killing four people.

It is a step too far, though, to leap from what any regime which has a 'military first' policy and spends at least a quarter of its GDP on military hardware would regard as 'small fry killings' to nuclear holocaust which would mean millions of North Korean deaths but, more importantly for the regime, the end of the Kim dynasty.

I've visited North Korea twice and negotiated, with a real expert by my side, the Caritas program in the country with government officials. I have continued to keep an interest in the country as I can't quite remove from my memory the stunted bodies of orphans in small towns near Pyongyang or the medieval obstetric equipment I saw in a hospital in Wonsan or the chain gangs of ordinary citizens fixing roads in bitter winds and snow.

And that's what they allow you to see. Many counties are closed at an hour's notice because of troop movements or too many citizens dropping dead from hunger. In addition to weaponry, these are the images negotiators have to keep in their mind's eye.

But in the search for an opening to end all talk of outright war, the West makes the paranoia of North Koreans even worse with their lack of historical context, insults and lack of cultural understanding.

Koreans have long memories, both of their glittering cultural past and the annexation of the country by Japan from 1910 until 1945, when attempts were made to suppress Korean culture and traditions. The memory of that experience is perhaps softened by gangnam style, the hi-tech and the rampant consumerism of contemporary Seoul but certainly not in the more austere North where every issue is put into a historical context.

There was an uproar when the President of Uruguay was heard through a microphone he thought was turned off calling the President of Argentina, Cristina Kirchner, an 'old hag', yet we think it is okay to publish pictures of Kim Jong-un with Mickey Mouse ears, and to refer to North Korea as part of the axis of evil and to Kim Jong-il as a 'pygmy' (President Bush in 2002), 'Orwellian', 'schizophrenic' and plain 'mad'.

Insulting a proud people, no matter how weird we think the regime is, does not win friends.

We should also remember that the North Korean people have been fed propaganda about the Kim family since the founding of the republic in 1948 with little access to other information to counteract the lies.

When I was in the country, I was taken to see a primary school and shown a tableau set in the middle of the room with little chairs for the toddlers surrounding it. The tableau was of the place where Kim Il-sung, the founder, was supposed to have been born (he wasn't) with the sacred symbol of the nation, Mount Baekdu, in the background. There was a feeling of holiness about the place, and Bethlehem came to mind.

The tears and histrionics that were reactions to the news of the deaths of the grandfather and father of the current leader were not necessarily false.

It is obvious that greater dialogue is necessary, with the abolition of nuclear weapons from North Korean soil as its aim. Dialogue can only begin with putting aside the past to ensure that there is a future — a difficult call when there is no basis for trust on either side.

De Klerk talked secretly to Mandela while he was still in prison about the new South Africa that would emerge after apartheid. Something similar happened between the two arch enemies in Northern Ireland. The West is happily wooing the Burmese President who was also part of a murderous regime. Dialogue requires deep listening to the other, no matter what we think of the person opposite or what that person stands for.

In North Korea, we in Caritas said we wanted to work with disabled people. We were told there were few disabled people in the country and we quickly responded that we would work with them anyway. And we managed that and also better monitoring of our program because we treated the people and the officials as human beings, rather than as if they belonged to an axis of evil or a Mickey Mouse dress party.

There may be a lesson there for politicians.

Duncan MacLaren headshotDuncan MacLaren visited North Korea as Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis which has a large program of aid to the country. He lectures in international development studies at Australian Catholic University in Sydney. 

Topic tags: Duncan MacLaren, North Korea, Kim Jong-un



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Existing comments

Talk is cheap. Where's Margaret Thatcher when you need her? She would know how to liberate Korea from the cloying structures of post cold-war consensus and heal this sick man of Asia. She would would understand the increasing disillusionment of the working class with the Left's failure to build a viable alternative vision to capitalism.

DavidSt | 15 April 2013  

A hint here that Jong-Un may in fact be trying to bring some order to an unchecked military. He may be the good guy. It's worth thinking about.

Frank | 16 April 2013  

Well said, Mr MacLaren. Regardless of our antipathy towards the appalling behaviour of the NK regime, nothing can be gained by sending Kim deeper into his psychological bunker.

Patricia R | 16 April 2013  

Thank you Duncan for your measured, decent and important insights into North Korea and your suggesting respectful talks as a medium for peace. This article also calls attention to recent hypocrisy of the right to speak ill of the dead and yet demeaning and ill speaking of the living, based on ignorance and furthering of that ignorance, runs rampant. Finally the US is 'ready to reach out and engage' with North Korea.

Vacy Vlazna | 16 April 2013  

Thank you for this article. When I see pictures in our media of long lost valleys inhabited by unicorns in North Korea, I smell a rat. Where are these ludicrous stories coming from? Not North Korea, but interests elsewhere that want to make us think North Koreans are a bunch of fools. The country is surrounded by China, Russia, Japan and South Korea (friend of the U.S.): North Korea is the object of intense strategic interest to the superpowers, more so now than since the fifties. While outsiders simply wish to portray the North Koreans as fools then we have a long way to go in our education and understanding. As for the blogger who thinks Margaret Thatcher would have solved the situation, one only has to read the views of her cabinet about going to the Falklands to see that she would not have been up to something as complex as the current tensions on the peninsula. This requires cool heads and common agreement.

APPEARANCES | 16 April 2013  

It is good to see a variation on the stream of hostility and mockery that comes in most media references to North Korea. Some context certainly helps us understand, if not condone, much of its behaviour. Gavan McCormack's book 'Target North Korea' (Random House Australia, 2004) remains an important contribution to such understanding.

Chris Watson | 16 April 2013  

You cannot make this stuff up! Duncan MacLean was happy to toast to the death of Margaret Thatcher. Without comment he noted that she was hated because of her dastardly social policies. But now we must not insult or mock a regime that has starved into population, leading to the death of millions. We must not upset a murderous Stalinist regime that imprisons swathes of its population in prison camps, and grinds it citizens under its iron heel. We must listen respectfully and engage in sincere dialogue. Imagine if some poor soul in North Korea had tossed back the Korean equivalent of a good malt to the death of grandpa or daddy Kim, just as MacLean and his ilk toasted the death of Thatcher. I have read that people were imprisoned for not being sufficiently grief-stricken at Kim's death. There could be no better contrast to the value of the two systems. The tragedy is that Duncan MacLean just cannot seem to appreciate this fact himself. @ Vacy Vlazna, in the previous article by Duncan MacLean people like me were not saying you should not speak ill of the dea. We were saying that celebrating the death of another human was unChristian.

MJ | 16 April 2013  

Does Duncan MacLean only plug his keyboard into his spleen when he is writing about dead Tory Prime Ministers? If he had shown a similarly tempered and measured approach in his assessment of Margaret Thatcher, I would have had much more respect for him. As he in fact showed no such restraint, I find his words in this article insincere, and cannot avoid the conclusion that he is guilty of double standards.

John Ryan | 16 April 2013  

I found no evidence of double standards in Duncan MacLaren's measured response at all. He is simply putting NK into historical perspective in order for Respectful dialogue is the only way forward. And none are in greater need for change than the ordinary North Koreans Duncan spoke of.

Pip | 17 April 2013  

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