Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How Doth the Little Crocodile

In a blurt of US-bloc propaganda, associate editor Max Fisher posted "The Dolphins of Pyongyang" at the Atlantic's website today.  It's about a shiny new aquarium that just opened in the capital of North Korea, despite the ever-diminishing standard of living most North Koreans endure, but even more it's about how brainwashed the people of North Korea are.
As far as North Korean propaganda is concerned, their own steep economic decline and the South's amazing rise never happened. The dozens of state-produced films that attract wide audiences every year -- movie tickets are subsidized and there's little other available entertainment -- depict South Korea as a land of poverty and crime. Many North Koreans, as Barbara Demick reported in her excellent book on the country, gratefully believe that they live in relative wealth and that poor South Koreans are desperate to join them.
Wow, I thought as I read those words, that sounds familiar.  It sounds like the fantasies of many (most) Americans, epitomized by the Only President We've Got just a few days ago.  We all know that America is Number One, despite the fact that we aren't, and we know that everybody in every other country wants to move here.  And we have much less excuse than the North Koreans, who do live in a sealed-off society with state-produced media.  Even our corporate media aren't controlled by the state, and those who want other sources are free and mostly able to access them.

That's not to say that the North Korean government isn't a failure, if you count failure as the inability or refusal to provide for the basic well-being of its citizens.  But the US is, by that standard, far from a success.  Nor do I deny that the North Korean government is brutally repressive, with vast numbers of unjustly incarcerated political prisoners.  But the US is becoming more repressive by the day, and one area in which we are Number One is the number of prisoners housed by our increasingly corporate prison system.  Many of them are arguably political prisoners, victims of our regime's War on Drugs.  Many are wrongly convicted, often because of the color of their skin.  No American who isn't loudly critical of US conduct first is in a position to cast the first stone at North Korea.  But as Noam Chomsky and others have noticed, it's always safe to attack official enemies -- especially relatively powerless enemies like North Korea.  The US has happily supported brutal dictatorships, in South Korea for example from 1946 to 1987, often instigating and supporting military coups against elected governments to install them, and their leaders are seldom referred to as "dictators" in the corporate media, as Fisher calls Kim Jong Un in his piece.  Really, the US and its elites have nothing against dictators who waste money on empty public works while their people go hungry, as long as they're our dictators.

Consider too that the American economy, while in better shape than North Korea's, is in trouble, with stagnating unemployment numbers, large numbers of people who rely on public assistance and private charity to feed themselves and their children, and an infrastructure that, while not a disaster, is well on its way to one.  (There's also poverty in South Korea, more than I suspect Fisher knows or wants to know.)  But we can still spend billions on sending a machine to Mars to take some rather boring digital snapshots of its vacation, and England (our right-hand partner in the Free World) can spend billions on a glitzy Olympic extravaganza.  (It's not irrelevant that that extravaganza happened to entail a fascist lockdown on the population of London, for "security.")  Of course we're still better off than North Korea, but that's one function of such a failed state: so that our citizens can look at the plight of its people and count ourselves lucky. 

Fisher mentions a report which "notes that [North Korean] defectors increasingly say that they wanted to leave on finally learning of the south's relative wealth and their own poverty."  This is also why so many Latin Americans have defected north of the Rio Grande, but it's not considered a good excuse in their case.  Despite the economic advantages of the US, most Mexicans who come here would rather be back home.  And North Korean defectors have found that the freedom-loving South didn't greet them with open arms.

The same group that produced that report
more darkly predicts that the regime will replace the lost legitimacy by escalating its acts of random aggression, writing, "The more the North Korean economy loses its distinctiveness vis-a-vis its counterpart to the south, the more the DPRK must demonstrate its legitimacy through military means." It's almost enough to make you wish for more dolphins in Pyongyang.
First, one should remember that North and South Korea are still technically one country; that they exist in a state of armed truce, not peace; and that both sides have been guilty of "acts of random aggression" over the years, except that the South's are seldom reported here.  In addition, the US has encouraged hardliners in Seoul by displays of military might, including war games, new bases sited primarily to threaten China but with North Korea in their sights, and interfering to prevent negotiations between North and South that showed promise of lessening tensions -- to say nothing of tens of thousands of American troops forty miles from the DMZ.  (Imagine thirty thousand North Korean troops permanently stationed in Vancouver.  Of course Washington wouldn't object to that, any more than we objected to Soviet troops in Cuba fifty years ago.)

Fisher's article could be worse.  I remember well how many Americans gloated over Kim Jong-Il's death less than a year ago, hoping that the regime would come crashing down, with no evident concern about the ordinary people who'd suffer in such an event.  (By the way, though Fisher writes as though this aquarium was wholly Kim Jong Un's doing, a project of such scale must have begun while his father was still alive.  Since Jong Un's status as leader was evidently fragile for some time, I doubt he could have stopped the aquarium even if he wanted to.  American liberals are are very big on not holding new leaders responsible for situations they inherited, so it would be only fair to cut Jong Un some slack on fixing an economy as throughly broken as North Korea's.)  As I wrote at the time, I don't believe that many of the people celebrating Kim's death give a damn about the North Korean people, or about peace on the Korean peninsula, or about anything except venting the free-floating rage and hatred they don't dare express about anything that matters. The US government is no more interested in democracy in North Korea than it is in the South, which means (at best) hardly at all; and most Americans don't know enough about either Korea to have an opinion. Max Fisher may know more about Korea than most Americans -- why, he edits the Atlantic's International Channel! -- but I don't believe he really cares about North Koreans' well-being any more than he cares about most Americans' well-being.